“None of them have shoes,” said a friend one night. She was speaking of children in an overseas orphanage from which she will be adopting a child. “We’re seeing if some area business can donate shoes. And we’re sending over toys.”
The rest of us around the table were silent, and I wondered if I was the only one thinking how absurd my earlier comments had been, about trying to sort out college applications. About whether each of my girls has enough art classes in her high school schedule to keep her happy.
It was one of those take-a-look-in-the-mirror moments. The reflection was startling, and not, I might add, all that appealing.
Good fiction can create the same effect, a moment of shock and epiphany. The last time I felt it, I was reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker. At the story’s start, the world is disconcerting, futuristic and gritty. In America’s Gulf Coast region, kids scavenge old oil tankers for any reusable parts. The reader learns how Nailer, the main character, and his companions, risk their lives for just enough money to get by. They scrounge and fight. They struggle to survive the elements, as men bully and exploit them. They are hungry, ragged, tough kids.
I was drawn in by Bacigalupi’s details. These offer the characters’ circumstances: Moon Girl, “her ears and lips and nose decorated with scavenged steel wire”; Pima who is “too big, and had the scabs and scars on her spine and elbows and knees to prove it. Light crew needed small bodies”; and Nailer himself “wondered what it would feel like to never wake in the middle of the night with his teeth chewing on his lips fooling himself into thinking that he was about to eat meat”. The kids are desperate, always close to harm and death.
After a storm that occurs 60-70 pages into the tale, I was led into another corner of Bacigalupi’s world. Nailer finds a damaged clipper ship, a ship unlike any he’s ever seen up close. A swank ship. He discovers “brass on the walls…all silk and carpeted corridors and brass and copper and little glass lanterns…carved furniture, sitting rooms, lounges, a bar with shattered liquor bottles.” Farther along, he gathers china and glassware, forks and ladles. He walks into a room, and he sees a hurt girl who wears rings and a golden pendant around her neck. To Nailer, this treasure trove could mean he doesn’t have to scramble the rest of his life.
To me, however, to many readers, this encounter is shocking, for the girl wears what many teens wear while walking down any American street. The riches Nailer plans to steal are clothing, silverware, and glasses found in many American homes. The reader, in this case myself, might have been identifying with Nailer and his companions for 70 pages, but suddenly she finds her own true reflection – Not the oppressed underdog, but instead the privileged swank.
This isn’t an entirely appealing reflection, yet its truth is compelling.